opinion November 18, 2019

Women Screen Composers: A turning of the tide? [op-ed]

Women Screen Composers: A turning of the tide? [op-ed]
Felicity Wilcox, Caitlin Yeo, Amanda Brown

I’m old enough to recall various waves of feminism throughout my life so far.

From Germaine Greer and the Female Eunuch in the 70’s, Susan Faludi and Naomi Wolfe in the 80’s, Riot Grrls and Guerilla Girls in the 90’s through to 21st century collectives like Synth Babes, the Alliance for Women Film Composers, Dame Changers, Screen Vixens, WIFT and our own Gender Equity Committee in Australia to name a few. All of this has been grist for the feminist mill over time, with small, and significant victories being claimed along the way.

Sometimes it has felt like one step forward, two steps back. There is still a long way to go before pay gaps are lessened and career parity is reached. But even an inherent cynic like me has to admit – finally – it feels like things are changing. 

At 13% the numbers for women screen composers demonstrate some of the worst in the film and music industries with only female cinematographers at a lower percentage of the professional pool. Female composers working in advertising fare even worse at only 7%. Despite these dismal figures, Laura Karpman from the AWFC observes, “the numbers are bleak but the landscape isn’t… people are reaching out to me in a way I’ve never seen in my whole career.”

So why the cautious cause for optimism given the dispiriting data? Have all these insistently squeaky wheels finally made a dent in the collective consciousness? Is patience, talent, hard work and sheer bloody-minded perseverance starting to pay off? Have mentoring, education and gender quotas made an impact? Or has there been a wider shift in society, prodded into action by the galvanising solidarity of the #MeToo movement?

Perhaps all this speculation can only be clarified through the lens of history and hindsight. Ultimately our own experiences fuel our perceptions. And what I am I noticing is a gradual widening of opportunities for women composers. My female colleagues are getting hired for higher profile jobs previously unavailable to them. I see their skills broadened by these experiences. I hear them producing some brilliant music. Music that could only have been made by women who have put in years practising and refining their art.

This has not gone unrecognised, as evidenced by the range of women nominated across both the AGSC/APRA Screen Awards and AACTA Awards this year. Bryony Marks has been nominated for an incredible six awards across both of these for her music for television series Lambs of God, Frayed and documentary 2040

AGSC President Caitlin Yeo has been nominated for 3 Screen Awards – for feature Danger Close; the Battle of Long Tan (also nominated for an AACTA), television theme The Pacific; in the Wake of Captain Cook with Sam Neill and Where Inspiration Lives – The Sydney Opera House. If Caitlin wins the latter, she will be the first woman to do so in the Best Music for an Advertisement category. 

Angela Little has been nominated for a Screen Award for Best Music for a Short Film for The Girl in the Coffee Shop. She has had a remarkable year, completing a Master of Music in Screen Scoring at the University of Southern California where she received the Sandra & Alan Silvestri Scholarship and has recently written music for Tencent’s game Honour of Kings.

Nerida Tyson-Chew is nominated for the second year running in the Most Performed (Overseas) Category – the only woman in this category. First-time nominees for Song of the Year include Bronte Horder for Day by Day from Fourteen and Sophia Brous and Mirrah Foulkes for Firesong from Judy and Punch. Freya Berkhout rounds out the list with a nomination for her work on short film Shiloh.

What this tells me is that this has been something of a watershed year for Australian women in screen music. Whether it remains a statistical blip on the empirical radar or part of a growing trend will be proven in time. But my inclination is that these women will continue to create quality music that is unique, daring and powerful. This turning of the tide is being reflected internationally, with a new wave of young women composers like Pinar Toprak and Hildur Guðnadóttir composing scores for big-budget Hollywood superhero films like Captain Marvel and Joker.

Pandora’s Box has been opened and it wasn’t a myriad of strife inside. It was a chorus of female voices, released into the world.

Amanda Brown has been nominated for both an AGSC/APRA and AACTA Award for Best Music for a Documentary for The Cult of the Family. She recently won the Soundtrack Stars Critics Prize for feature Babyteeth at Venice and is currently composing the music for Lingo Pictures series The Secrets She Keeps.